IF BILLY WRIGHT had been trotted out as a comic-strip hero, he would have been ridiculed as being too good to be true. Blond and handsome, personable and clean-living, he was England's football captain and the first man from any country to win a century of international caps; he led the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers, one of the most successful sides of the Forties and Fifties, to all the top domestic honours and he captivated Britain by marrying one of its best-loved pop stars, the flaxen-haired beauty Joy Beverley (the one in the middle of the Beverley Sisters).
Wright was a paragon of sporting and family virtue. He exuded wholesome, uncomplicated enthusiasm, was a slave to the work ethic and modest to a fault. And, to burnish the spotless persona still further, he had risen to eminence only after overcoming two heart- tugging early setbacks: being reduced to tears when written off as 'too small' at the age of 15, and later bouncing back from an injury which had threatened to end his career almost before it had begun.
In fact, though they could hardly be described as blots on his escutcheon, there were certain differences between the genial Salopian and 'Roy of the Rovers'. For a start, Wright was a defender, and therefore not natural headline fodder as a spectacular match-winner. But more tellingly, and rather surprisingly in view of his immense achievements, he was not blessed with outstanding natural talent. Indeed, his ability to control and pass a ball were distinctly mediocre, and as a right-half in his twenties his positional play was questionable, too.
Despite his mastery of the fierce, perfectly timed tackle and a prodigiously spring-heeled leap that lifted his solid 5ft 8in frame high above towering opponents in aerial duels, those defects might have reduced Wright to the crowded ranks of soccer's also- rans. But what gave him his edge - particularly at his best, after his mid-1950s conversion to centre- half - was a keen footballing brain which enabled him to 'read' the game, putting him one move ahead of most men around him. He would break up countless attacks through intelligent interceptions, rescue stricken colleagues by perceptive covering and remain cool in the most frenzied of crises. As a skipper, he was no bullying martinet, eschewing unseemly exhortation in favour of quiet motivation, declaring that 'captaincy is the art of leadership, not dictatorship', invariably setting an impeccable personal example in terms of both effort and sportsmanship.
Wright, whose father worked in an iron foundry and was a useful amateur player, had supported Arsenal as a boy, but went for a trial with his local club, Wolves, in 1938 in response to a newspaper advertisement. Though taken on as an apprentice, the stocky kid with the shock of fair hair - 'Snowy' to his new Molineux workmates - made so little an early impression that the team's manager, Major Frank Buckley, sent him packing, telling the tearful teenager he wasn't big enough to make the grade. Even when Wright heard, 20 minutes later, that Buckley had changed his mind, the relief was tainted by the news that the managerial U-turn had been inspired more by the industrious apprentice's prowess with broom and scrubbing brush (in his secondary role as groundsman's helper) than by his aptitude for football.
However, Wright worked hard and progressed, playing his first senior game in 1939 and then, having picked up valuable experience guesting for Leicester City when Wolves withdrew temporarily from wartime competition, he turned professional in 1942. A bright future beckoned but then came near-calamity when he suffered a badly broken ankle. Buckley, for one, thought Wright would not play again, but Wright confounded the doubters to make a swift recovery and see out the balance of the war as an Army PT instructor.
He found time to excel in services football, too, and come January 1946 he was chosen for England in an unofficial Victory celebration international against Belgium. Though selected at
inside-left, after an injury to Frank Soo he was moved to right-half, the position he filled on his full England debut later the same month.
Now Wright came into his own. By the age of 24 he was skippering both club and country; in 1949 he led Wolves to triumph in the FA Cup Final against Leicester and a year later he took England into the first of three consecutive World Cup tournaments. That was in Brazil, where the team performed badly, especially in a humiliating 1-0 defeat by the United States, but Wright, at least, survived with reputation intact. Though his form dipped in the 1950-51 season, he proved so resilient that he was named Footballer of the Year in 1952, then in 1954 captained Wolves to their first League Championship.
That summer brought a turning-point in the Wright career when he switched to the centre of defence during the World Cup finals in Switzerland, following an injury to Syd Owen. It was apparent that he had found his true niche, his new role making light of his ball-playing limitations and emphasising his more solid qualities. In addition, it conserved the 30-year-old's energy and, no doubt, lengthened his playing span considerably.
During mid-decade Wolves, now managed by Stan Cullis, were challenged only by Manchester United's Busby Babes as England's finest, and Wright's contribution was enormous, notably in several high-profile friendlies with Continental clubs which helped to blaze the British trail into Europe.
Two more League titles followed, in 1958 and 1959, the last- mentioned year providing Wright with a memorable swansong. That April, on the day his daughter Victoria was born, he was picked for his 100th international; six weeks later, the world's sole cap-centurion made his 105th and final appearance for his country, the last 70 of them consecutive; in June he was appointed CBE; in August he retired, aged 35 but still at the pinnacle of his profession.
The decision to stop playing, made only after he struggled to keep up with younger team-mates during pre-season training, unleashed an avalanche of public acclamation for one of English football's favourite sons. Indeed, more than 20,000 fans turned up for Wolves' early-August trial match that was his farewell appearance in the old gold-and-black colours he had graced for so long.
Now Wright found himself in great demand. Wanderers offered him a job for life, initially as assistant to Cullis, and other clubs were willing for him to become their boss with immediate effect. However, he opted instead for the international arena, taking charge of England's youth and under-23 teams, with an unspoken understanding that one day he would assume command of the senior side in succession to his friend Walter Winterbottom.
But that was never to be. When his boyhood favourites, Arsenal, offered him the Highbury hot-seat in 1962 he could not resist, and he took on the onerous task of reviving the north Londoners' flagging fortunes. Wright made a promising start, too, buying the star centre-forward Joe Baker and guiding the Gunners to seventh and eighth places in the First Division during his first two campaigns.
But this encouraging progress could not disguise underlying problems. It seemed that Wright was simply too nice for the job, lacking the necessary ruthlessness to make hard decisions, and he suffered a consequent decline in respect from some of his staff. Inevitably, results suffered and, after two finishes in the bottom half of the table, the unthinkable happened - Billy Wright was sacked. Yet his spell at Highbury should not be viewed as a complete flop. He was a beneficial influence on a generation of Arsenal youngsters and much of the talent he nurtured - the likes of Charlie George and John Radford - came through as Bertie Mee led the Gunners to the League and FA Cup double in 1971.
Thereafter, understandably rather disillusioned, Wright left football to build a successful new career in television, first as a frontman on such programmes as Junior Sportsview, then as an imaginative administrator. He became head of sport for both the Midlands-based ATV and its successor, Central TV, before retiring in 1989.
But it is as England's golden- haired captain, he of the Boy Scout image on and off the pitch, that Billy Wright claims a special place in the annals of British sporting history.